What Do We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Theme’?

When you think about ‘theme’, what do you think of?

Chances are it takes you back to GCSE English Literature, picking out key themes from Shakespeare, or 19th century literature. That was certainly the case for me, and when I asked this question to the young writers at the Warkworth Cuckoo Young Writers group, their responses were similar. Love, hate and family in Romeo and Juliet; ambition and the supernatural in Macbeth; poverty in A Christmas Carol.

In school, we are explicitly taught ‘theme’ as part of analysing texts. It is notoriously difficult to pin down and explain. It’s wriggly and slippery and subjective. Often described as the ‘big’ ideas in the novel, it can get mixed up with plot easily. Ask someone to define the word ‘theme’, and they’ll waffle around a little, probably naming a few to help to illustrate what they mean. I’m no different – just look at the way I’m avoiding giving a definition here! Even the dictionary is very little help; it’s first definition ‘the subject of a piece of writing’ could easily refer to plot or character. The second definition gives a little more clarity – ‘an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of literature’. That word, ‘pervades’, gives an impression of something that seeps into every word.

It’s one of those things that you know when you see. When you read a novel, you can unpick the themes. Whether it’s innate, something we do without thinking, just part of being human, or whether it’s been drilled in since our school days, considering ‘theme’ is just a part of the experience of engaging with a text.

‘Theme’ is like the thumbprint of the writer left on the work – the issues that are important to them, the arguments or ideologies than underpin their understanding of the world. They leave the reader with a particular viewpoint echoing in their brains, which then becomes representative of the writer.

So if ‘theme’ is so crucial to a reader’s understanding of the message of a novel, where is it emphasised in the writing process? Plot. Character. Dialogue…the bread and butter of planning a piece of writing. How about ‘theme’? Often themes emerge without careful planning or consideration, but rise to the top of our writing unavoidably.

How often is ‘theme’ something that you consider before you embark on a new piece? Here are some exercises for discovering ‘theme’ in your own writing:

  • Make a master list of all the themes that you can think of. Keep to broad strokes if that feels more comfortable – love, identify, manipulation – but ultimately don’t shy away from adding big issue themes – war, social mobility, politics, gender – and keep adding to your list whenever something new occurs to you. The themes that get your heart pounding or strike an emotional chord within you are the ones to keep an eye out for in your writing.
  • Try to condense the plot of your story into one single tweet (140 characters). In such a small space, it’s impossible to avoid the key concepts that drive your story, and that should make it much easier to identify what ‘theme’ is at the heart of your work.
  • Choose a colour. Freewrite for ten minutes about what that colour means to you and include as many associations as you have with that colour. It could be emotions, memories, objects…colours can be powerful symbols that can at the same time be deeply personal and also like a universal language. Implement a particular colour in certain locations, or attach them to certain characters to give away a subtle hint to your reader about your authorial intent.
  • Think about an item that could represent your ‘theme’ and become a motif – for example, the Mockingjay in the Hunger Games It starts out as a pin that Katniss wears and turns into a symbol for the revolution. The Warkworth Cuckoo group suggested letters in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde as an example of the revelation of truth.

We all make connections in our mind between items and ideas, so mind-map a list of potential items that could represent your ‘theme’. Then choose one to recur within your story. Write a detailed description of this item, thinking about all the senses. Write a scene where a character interacts with this object. Cherry-pick moments where this item could appear throughout the narrative. Does it change as your message changes? Does it evolve with the ‘theme’?

Heather Askwith is the leader of the Warkworth Cuckoo Young Writers group.

New Writing North runs writing groups for 12-19 year olds in Newcastle, Sunderland, Amble/Warkworth, Cramlington, South Shields and Durham. The groups are small and friendly and are led by professional writers. They meet every Saturday in term-time and are free to attend. Click here to find out more about our Cuckoo Young Writers groups.